A foreign consumer of U.S. news might reasonably conclude that the famous American work ethic is in sharp decline. The shutdowns and school closures of 2020–21 taught the nation’s workers that they could stop working for months at no great personal or societal cost. Governmental policies allegedly meant to assist workers affected by the pandemic—forgivable loans to employers, multiple subventions to all, a moratorium on evictions—encouraged many to believe that work was a nonessential, and possibly harmful, part of life.
This mass exodus from the working world, termed the Great Resignation by economists, ought to sound like terrible news to any ordinary person. A man who doesn’t work doesn’t flourish, and the same is true of a society. In his 2016 book, Men Without Work, Nicholas Eberstadt chronicled the slow, steady exit of working-age men from the American economy—an exit not reflected in the unemployment rate, which tracks only the number of people looking for employment. The social consequences Eberstadt describes are dire: drug addiction, crime (both “petty” and violent), dependency, family break-up, deaths of despair. The political response to Covid-19, as Eberstadt explains in a post-pandemic reissue of the book, has only hastened the exodus.
But to the writers and readers of fashionable liberal opinion, the decline of America’s work ethic is a reason for chirpy optimism. The New York Times, in a perhaps unconscious effort to discover evidence that the onerous pandemic restrictions the paper championed weren’t the disaster they plainly were, has published a series of pieces on how the pandemic changed our “approach to work.” One article claimed many people quit their jobs for better-paying ones; another told stories of workers quitting their jobs to find a better “work-life balance”; another documented the ways in which quitting encouraged healthy and liberating expressions of workers’ grievances. Still another documented the experience of a nonprofit executive who resigned from her job and “reconnected” with her family. Not working is wonderful!
Elsewhere in the media one encounters story after story about Americans working less, very few of them including any suggestion that there might be something to worry about. Efforts in several states to impose a 32-hour workweek; the phenomenon of “quiet quitting” in which employees stick it to their bosses by curtailing their effort; the renewed popularity of “pro-natal” policies in which the government relieves new parents from the burdens of remunerative labor; claims by academic theorists that terms such as “work ethic” and “hard work” are outgrowths of white supremacy—all receive positive, often celebratory, treatment.
American political rhetoric hasn’t caught up with the trend. The word “work” has long held an almost sacred status in American political life, and still does. Public officials of both parties regularly speak of citizens as “hardworking Americans” or “hardworking taxpayers,” and even the ones who champion every expansion of the welfare state frequently speak about the “dignity” of work and sentimentalize their own hardscrabble upbringing and long-laboring moms and pops. “Joey, remember,” President Biden recently claimed his father used to say, “a job is about a lot more than a paycheck. It’s about your dignity. It’s about respect. It’s about your place in the community.” The words sound like the script of a Lifetime movie, and I assume Biden Sr. never said any such thing. But the fact that the president felt he needed to remind his supporters that work is good, not bad, suggests that something has gone amiss in the national understanding of work.
The best way to get at this problem is to ask the most basic question: What is work?
There is a long tradition in Western nations of doubting the intrinsic value of work. The poet William Wordsworth and the journalist William Cobbett, among others in the early-19th century, worried that industrial labor was monotonous and soul-killing in a way that agricultural work was not. Radicals and Marxists in the late-19th and early-20th centuries spun this apprehension into elaborate ideologies in which oppressed workers, having finally thrown off their exploiters, would pursue meaningful, ennobling work in an abuse-free eschaton.
To give that tradition its due, one must acknowledge that some forms of works aren’t “dignified” in any obvious way, and no young person aspires to a life spent pursuing them: disposing of carcasses in a chicken-processing plant, cleaning dishes, taking inventory in the warehouse of a wholesale distributor, delivering pizza, collecting garbage. Yet these jobs must be done, we are all grateful that they are done, and some people possess the strength of soul to do them well.
But the question is: Is there a difference between dignified and undignified work? There is, but the difference does not consist, as today’s progressives would assume, in the material conditions of the workers. What distinguishes dignified and undignified work is its aim. I think of a passage in Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead in which Aleksandr, the narrator, observes that hard labor with a purpose is infinitely better than easy labor without one.
Hard labor, as it is now carried on, presents no interest to the convict; but it has its utility. The convict makes bricks, digs the earth, builds; and all his occupations have a meaning and an end. Sometimes, even the prisoner takes an interest in what he is doing. He then wishes to work more skillfully, more advantageously. But let him be constrained to pour water from one vessel into another, or to transport a quantity of earth from one place to another, in order to perform the contrary operation immediately afterwards, then I am persuaded that at the end of a few days the prisoner would strangle himself or commit a thousand crimes, punishable with death, rather than live in such an abject condition and endure such torments.
Both forms of work Aleksandr mentions here—making bricks and building things, on the one hand, and pouring water into vessels and moving around piles of dirt, on the other—are grueling and terrible. Both are carried out in abject, inhumane conditions. But the prisoner who builds things does so in order that other human beings may enjoy the results, and the prisoner who moves around dirt does so for no reason. The latter’s work is undignified. He goes mad doing it.
The prisoner who makes bricks may not even like the people who will benefit from the bricks. Presumably he does not like them at all. The point is that the work has a purpose, a usefulness to humans.
Most work in most places is not done by prisoners who dislike the beneficiaries of their work. Most work is done by people who have at least some respect for their clients and patrons. I think of my father. For about 25 years he owned and ran a small oceanfront lodge, The Viking, on the South Carolina coast. The guests were mostly working-class families, and many of them returned year after year because it was a clean, well-run, and affordable place to spend a week at the beach. Running such a place is not an easy way to make a living. The patrons of a restaurant or an auto-repair shop vacate the premises after it closes, but the guests in an inn are always there. One of them could set off a fire alarm or fall off a balcony or clog a toilet at any time, day or night. My father liked most of the guests very much; all of them he respected.
What gave his work dignity was not that he performed it in adequate material conditions, or that he received a certain level of pay for it. What gave it dignity was that it afforded his guests a measure of delight. Economists would call what my father did “value creation,” but this charmless term robs the concept of its beauty. He didn’t simply create something people found good enough to purchase, namely, a clean oceanfront room for a certain number of days. He gave them a week or so of affordable freedom from worry and toil, a break in their routine, a room cleaned by others, a feeling of liberation and happiness.
That is the core of dignified work: It blesses somebody else.
The Hebrew and Christian scriptures locate the meaning of work in God’s creation of the world in six days and His resting from that work on the seventh. His creative activity wasn’t busywork carried out as a noble example for others to follow. He made things and then made creatures to enjoy those things. The text of Genesis places great emphasis on the gifts afforded to man. “And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.” Not just to man but to every other living thing, too. “And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so.”
The first to work with a meaning and an end was God Himself.
There is a wonderful pair of questions and answers in the Westminster Shorter Catechism of 1647 that captures this understanding of work. The catechisms, shorter and larger, were didactic devices based on the Westminster Confession, the Calvinist statement of faith worked out during the English Civil War by Scottish and English clergymen and theologians. In one section the catechisms ask what each of the Ten Commandments forbids and requires. The Shorter Catechism (the one memorized by many generations of Presbyterian children) asks these questions about the Eighth Commandment, the one prohibiting theft.
Q. 74. What is required in the eighth commandment?
A. The eighth commandment requireth the lawful procuring and furthering the wealth and outward estate of ourselves and others.
Q. 75. What is forbidden in the eighth commandment?
A. The eighth commandment forbiddeth whatsoever doth or may unjustly hinder our own or our neighbor’s wealth or outward estate.
I’ve added the emphasis. Each prohibition, in the Westminster divines’ conception, requires its opposite, and so the ban on theft demands the obedient lover of God both to get wealth and outward estate for himself and others, and then to further it. That, in essence, is the “Protestant work ethic” so badly misunderstood by Max Weber as a desperate need to prove one’s election by the exhibition of wealth.
In 1649 the divines added scriptural citations to the catechisms, and the first passage cited for #74 was Genesis 30:30. This is Jacob telling Laban, his uncle, that he wishes to move away with his wives and children: “And he said unto him, Thou knowest how I have served thee, and how thy cattle was with me. For it was little which thou hadst before I came, and it is now increased unto a multitude; and the Lord hath blessed thee since my coming: and now when shall I provide for mine own house also?” In the Westminster exegetes’ view, Jacob’s activities, benefitting as they did himself and his unscrupulous but lawful employer, captures the meaning of the Eighth Commandment’s prohibition on theft: Work yields something useful or delightful to somebody else. Another person gains by it.
The crucial point about this Jewish and Christian understanding of work, as I think it is, is that it happily allows self-interest to be part of the duty of aiding and blessing others. God created the world for His own glory and for the benefit of man. Jacob multiplied livestock for himself and Laban. My father labored at The Viking because he needed to provide for his family and because he liked and respected his guests and enjoyed seeing them happy. The famous “invisible hand” passage in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776) is often recruited to illustrate this principle. The individual merchant, Smith writes,
neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.
Smith was not saying, and did not believe, that people, if not interfered with, simply enrich themselves and one another. But his observation does assume that a person can pursue his own welfare and, without making it his conscious goal, contribute to the general welfare, too.
Alexis de Tocqueville expresses a closely related idea when, in volume 2 of Democracy in America, he reflects on the plainer and more robust sort of virtue he saw in the ordinary American citizen. He called it “self-interest well understood.” It was a limited, plainer, more useful idea than classical conceptions of virtue that strove for selflessness and achieved sublimity. “The doctrine of self-interest well understood,” he writes, “does not produce great devotion; but it suggests little sacrifices each day; by itself it cannot make a man virtuous; but it forms a multitude of citizens who are regulated, temperate, moderate, farsighted, masters of themselves; and if it does not lead directly to virtue through the will, it brings them near to it insensibly through habits.” The self-interested man, in Tocqueville’s sense, is diligent and conscientious in his little sphere of life, and this affords small gains to everyone who comes across that sphere.
Tocqueville saw that the diligent, resourceful Americans he witnessed did not lack virtue simply because they made money by their work. For others—Marxists and other radicals in the 19th century, leftists of various kinds in the 20th, progressives in the 21st—the noblest kind of work is selfless, altruistic, sacrificial. Are they right?
In a word, no. The presence of a monetary exchange is a good indication that someone has gained. It’s not the only indication that genuine work has been done, and not an infallible one, but it’s a pretty reliable signal that something good has been created and conveyed to someone else. If someone is willing to pay for a bouquet of flowers, that is strong evidence that the bouquet was put together well enough to afford a spot of happiness in the life of another person. A monetary exchange also makes it more likely that other, similarly fetching bouquets will be made. Financial transactions signify valuable work in other areas of life, too, not only in business. A police officer, say, provides a service people pay for. He deters crime and arrests criminals and curbs dangerous behavior, and municipalities purchase his labor with public revenue. The same may be said of garbage collectors. Their service, when done well and on time, is worth paying them ample sums to do it. And when they do it, there is dignity.
A great deal of work in 21st-century America still fits this description. Millions of people do superb work that benefits their friends, family, neighbors, customers, and clients. But here is a sad thing. Public discourse is America is dominated by the very people whose work doesn’t fit that description. A great deal of work undertaken by people in these sectors isn’t useful to anyone. No one wants it. No one is blessed or pleased or advantaged by it. No one would willingly pay his own money, or make any sacrifice at all, to procure it.
At its worst, this part of American life resembles the 1991 film Slacker, a plotless sequence of scenes in which youngish residents of Austin spend their energies on weird tasks that benefit no one—building yard decorations that symbolize the menstrual cycle, throwing a typewriter off a bridge in an act of male solidarity, discussing the philosophical import of the Smurfs, attempting to hawk a pap smear supposedly originating from the pop singer Madonna. Today’s elite skeptics of the work ethic don’t appear so risible as that, but they have this in common with the Austin weirdos. Both think a thing is worth doing because someone feels like doing it, whether it has use for other people or not.
Consider these four sectors: government, higher education, consultancy, and nonprofit. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of these areas of labor. Each includes individuals and organizations that make positive contributions to their surroundings and the nation generally. But none of these sectors is known primarily for producing things that people like enough to make sacrifices in order to attain. And each is full of people who do very little work that can fairly be called useful or beneficial. That these four sectors loom so large in our corporate life tends to distort what Americans think about value, work, and reality.
Read a typical story in the mainstream press, and it will include observations by a bureaucrat, an academic, a consultant, and an activist. The premise of the story will relate to some governmental decision, and the reporter will seek comment from (a) the government official responsible for the decision or the official’s spokesman; (b) an academic—Professor of Specialized Topic at the Impressive School of Acclaimed University, an “expert in workplace psychology,” or “an expert in creative placemaking,”1 or some other alleged thing a person can be an expert in; (c) a consultant—someone who “advises companies and governments” on Vogue Cultural Topic, or who is a Republican/Democratic “political strategist”; and (d) an activist—an “advocate for women’s health” or the Director of the Center for Getting Government to Do Things. At no point in these stories will you hear from anyone whose job it is to make things or provide services that other human beings enjoy and profit from sufficiently to pay their own money for.
Government. It’s easy to ridicule government and its officials for producing nothing of measurable value, but of course it isn’t a proper function of government to produce things, useful or not. Government doesn’t build roads, for example; it pays other people to build them. The prospect of profit is rightly absent from government’s remit.
Still it’s worth recalling how unproductive government is. The agency worker doesn’t need to work hard and well in order to maximize profits, or to keep his job, because there are no profits and there is very little chance he will lose his job. The result, in addition to much necessary provision, is a lot of unnecessary activity that pleases no one. In the absence of any metric for success or accomplishment, employees can’t be let go easily, or at all, and something must be found for them to do.
There is a longstanding debate about the proportional growth of the federal workforce in relation to the general population, and like many such debates, much depends on how the two sides are counted. A better gauge of the federal government’s pervasiveness, though still an imperfect one, would be to name the many things that Washington funds. You will hardly meet a person who works outside the private sector whose bills aren’t in some measure paid by the federal government. Museum curators, archivists, geologists, horticulturists, artists, composers, documentary filmmakers, librarians, historians—federal money supplements these and a thousand similar forms of employment. This in addition to the many hundreds of thousands of positions the federal government employs, for the most part properly: soldiers, law-enforcement investigators, intelligence gatherers, prison guards, meteorologists, information technicians of every kind, and so on. There is nothing wrong with any of these lines of work. In the abstract, they may all be good and necessary. But because they are governmental, it is difficult to know how valuable and necessary their work product is. People don’t pay for it in the ordinary sense; it’s paid for by elected budget-writers and procurement officers who often don’t know what they’re purchasing. City councilors know more or less what they’re purchasing when they allot a certain amount for the police force; they do not know what they’re purchasing when they devote a line item in the city budget for diversity officers or “creative placemakers.”
Activist. The nonprofit world grows as fast as government does. It is in most cases consciously designed to influence government, and each new growth in governmental power and resources presents the aptly termed nonprofit sector with a new opportunity of influence.
The esteem in which activists and agitators are held, at least among the hypereducated upper-middle-class busybodies who run developed nations in the West, can hardly be exaggerated. The word “activist,” as it’s commonly used in the news media, sometimes signifies a person with a paid position at a nonprofit organization or a political action committee. But often it simply means a full-time scold and fomenter of allegedly well-intentioned trouble: “climate activist,” “reproductive-rights activist,” “food activist.” Such a person would reject this description of his activities and point to the laudable aims for which he stands. He opposes the use of trans-fatty acids in school lunches. He wants tougher laws on drunk drivers and price-gougers and child abusers. He wants to save marshlands from development and women from the cruelty of abortion regulations. Some of these aims are nobler than others, but it is fair to ask: Who gauges their value?
The answer is, they do. The typical activist and nonprofit fomenter looks with scorn on the private sector, where (as they think) things are done only for monetary gain. But the private sector at least has a metric of success external to itself—namely, profit. Private companies define their success by whether they’re making money, and by that standard many of them fail and cease to exist. Activists define their own value and gauge their own success, and not surprisingly they perform consistently well.
Nonprofit organizations are meant in part to give structure and accountability to activism. They have boards of directors and donor bases, and if the nonprofits become ineffective, donors stop giving. That is the theory, anyway. But there are problems. The founder of the nonprofit championing the rights of disadvantaged women may be an honest and hard-working person, but the nonprofit class is full of people who spend the bulk of their energies inventing fictional injustices and pretending to fight them.
The nonprofit sector does produce valuable work at the margins, but perverse incentives are part of its nature. The average nonprofit organization begins when someone sees an injustice or a problem in society, usually though not always one perpetuated by government policy. The organization takes on that problem and meets with a small measure of success. Its donors thrill to the news and encourage it to do more. But eventually the problem subsides on its own or evolves into some other problem. Or, more typically, those wanting to solve the problem come to realize its total intractability. Either way, the nonprofit’s leaders and staff, obliged as they are to demonstrate their value to donors, quietly shift their aims to lesser, more manageable goals. The nonprofit grows and becomes an institution itself, with staff, traditions, a building, a brand, a base of supporters. Now it exists for its own sake, separate from its original goals. Eventually it becomes easier for the nonprofit to create fictional problems and fake accomplishments in a perpetual effort to keep the money flowing.
Not all but many of these organizations exist largely for their own sake. They employ or hire lobbyists, and the lobbyists hobnob with politicos and occasionally get a proviso stripped from a bill or a regulation rewritten in a favorable way. These will count as major “accomplishments” in the cause of freedom or animal rights or humane governance or trans rights or whatever. Many other organizations don’t even get that far; they haven’t precipitated a quantifiable policy change, even a minuscule one, in decades. But all of them are skilled in telling their wealthy supporters and government grant-issuing agencies what wonderful work they do and how indispensable they are.
Academic. Idleness is the particular vice of mandarins. When you elevate an entire class of people on the grounds that they know things and are able to tell us what they know, they will soon get used to knowing things and not doing much of anything. The knowledge class’s proneness to vanity and folly is a danger in any society. The problem arises when there is no demand for the things the experts know, and they begin to produce those things for reasons of self-preservation, institutional expectations, vanity, or idiocy. The institution employing the expert asks him to enhance his expertise and to teach and write about it, but the institution does so exclusively in order to enhance its own prestige and attract more “investment” from the government and financial gifts from donors.
Jonathan Swift memorably parodied the vain delusions of state-supported or otherwise cosseted experts in Lemuel Gulliver’s visit to the Academy of Lagado. The narrator visits one expert after another, each engaged in a preposterous project in which no rational person will ever have the slightest interest: a blind professor famous for teaching his blind students to distinguish the colors of paints by “feeling and smelling”; an architect who had devised a method of building houses from the roof down; an agricultural innovator who has developed a new way to plow fields by burying acorns, dates, and chestnuts in rows and having hogs dig them up. The first room visited by Gulliver, though, is worth quoting in full:
The first Man I saw was of a meagre Aspect, with sooty Hands and Face, his Hair and Beard long, ragged, and singed in several places. His Clothes, Shirt, and Skin were all of the same Colour. He had been eight Years upon a Project for extracting Sunbeams out of Cucumbers, which were to be put into Vials hermetically Sealed, and let out to warm the Air in raw inclement Summers. He told me, he did not doubt in eight Years more, he should be able to supply the Governor’s Gardens with Sunshine at a reasonable Rate; but he complained that his Stock was low, and entreated me to give him something as an Encouragement to ingenuity, especially since this had been a very dear Season for Cucumbers. I made him a small Present, for my Lord had furnished me with Money on purpose, because he knew their Practice of begging from all who go to see them.
That this hirsute expert requires government grants to continue his work gives the episode added relevance.
Of all the just complaints made against the modern university, the fact that it produces enormous quantities of knowledge that no one wants is the most under-discussed. No one wants to read a monograph about phallic metaphors in early-modern poetry—no one, that is, except a few scholars in the field of early-modern poetry, who only skim the monograph in order to cite it in their own, equally useless, monographs. But no one, literally no one, wants the book for its own sake, and no one would pay his own money for the purpose of enjoying it. That’s an extreme example, but not a hypothetical one, and the principle obtains, to varying degrees, across all disciplines. Survey the catalogues of academic presses, especially the second-tier ones and below, and you find a vast number of books that no one wants to read and no one will ever seek out. Survey the course offerings, and it’s plain that many academics are permitted to teach on subjects no one cares about and no one ever will, and that their lectures are attended mainly by students trying to fill course requirements and move on to graduation, not by people genuinely hoping to learn.
The upshot is that the relationship between buyer (student) and seller (university) is hopelessly deformed. The two barely know each other. Most students aren’t enrolled because they want the educational product, and most administrators and faculty aren’t there to provide it. Administrators, especially the ever-multiplying numbers of “coordinators” at the larger institutions, exist for the sake of the university and its various fiefdoms. Most do jobs that have no connection to the people actually paying the bills, and it’s not at all clear who those people even are. Parents? Taxpayers? Scholarship-granting organizations? Certainly not the people supposedly benefiting from the service: students. Faculty, meanwhile, are in practice hired by other faculty, and their longevity in their positions does not depend on whether they do their jobs well or poorly. The tenured may do their jobs abysmally and remain on the payroll indefinitely. What faculty are certainly not required to do, in any case, is teach well in order to keep students interested in attending.
These pathologies badly distort the understanding of work in our university-based mandarin class. That sounds harsh, but the point here is not to criticize the quality of instruction and scholarship produced by today’s academics, some significant minority of whom are brilliant scholars who contribute tremendously to the lives of their students. The point, rather, is that today’s higher-education system—insanely expensive, bloated with administrators, abounding in bogus scholarship and instruction that no one will ever want—promotes the sort of twisted and amoral understanding of work Jonathan Swift parodied in Gulliver.
What prevails on university campuses is the assumption that whatever faculty and administrators are doing should, in fact, be done and indeed deserves a protected, privileged sphere in which to do it. That assumption produces about what an ordinary person would predict: a mania for expensive new facilities, never-ending mission creep, departments and disciplines premised on bizarre crotchets and unfalsifiable theories, draconian and ever-changing “speech codes,” and on and on.
Consultant. The basic idea behind consultancy in the modern sense is that it offers a way for someone with relevant understanding and experience to give advice to those who need it. A typical and legitimate form of consultancy might go like this: A person spends two or three decades working for a large nuclear-power company. He knows a lot about the safe transfer of nuclear fuel. Eventually he leaves or retires from the company. He becomes a “consultant,” perhaps opening his own firm for the purpose, by advising companies, either the one he retired from or other ones, on how to minimize danger in the shipping of nuclear fuel. In that case, the consultant is doing work that has intrinsic value. The company needs his work in order to succeed at some new venture, and it pays an amount set more or less by the market to have that work done.
But that is usually not how consultancy works. In the far more ordinary circumstance, the consultant provides work that has no intrinsic value. Ordinarily the consultant offers his service to government officials or the managers of massive dysfunctional corporations. These are happy to shovel large amounts of money to the consultant because they have no accurate sense of who the money belongs to and no interest in figuring out what a fair market price might be.
Think first of political consultants. This consultant’s client is either a government agency or a person running for office. In that sense the consultant is like any government contractor: Both produce things that people purchase with other people’s money. In the case of a government contractor, though, the quality of his product can be measured using more or less objective criteria. Its quality may be measured imperfectly, and by government officials who don’t know what they’re measuring, but a construction company can’t deliver a gravel driveway when it was hired to build an interstate overpass, and a defense firm hired to produce missiles can’t send the Pentagon a truckload of espresso machines.
The political consultant can do something almost as ridiculous, and frequently does. A political campaign hires a consultant to win an election. The candidate wins. But how do we know whether it was the consultant’s services—polling, messaging, ads, a “ground game,” whatever that means—that delivered the win? A thousand factors might have swayed the electorate to support one candidate or the other, factors that had nothing to do with whatever the consultant told him to do and say, and there is no way to assess its merit. But of course the candidate doesn’t need to assess its merit, since he is usually spending campaign money that doesn’t belong to him and can’t be spent on anything else anyway. Indeed no one, barring the odd billionaire who can drop a few million dollars without feeling it, would buy those services with his own money.
There are other sorts of consultant that provide intrinsically worthless services. These are hired by large corporations not because they produce a thing or a service that has value but solely in order to keep the activists and the government off their backs. There is an entire industry of “diversity and inclusion” consultancies that tell companies what kinds of rules they should and shouldn’t impose in their workplaces, and what “training” they should force on their employees. These consultants’ service has no value that anyone would want for its own sake. The decision to hire the consultant arises from the need to comply with onerous governmental demands, or the need to appear well-intentioned in some way, or the need to avoid accountability for a risky decision if the decision turns out to be wrong.
There are other types of consultant. A federal agency requires companies to disclose the environmental impact of some operation. But the company can’t “disclose” that information because the “impact” depends on a host of interpretive assumptions. The company will have to make up something that sounds credible. To do that, and to demonstrate its intention to comply with the mandate, it hires a consultancy to conduct a study and produce a report. The work this consultancy does has no actual value. It is, in essence, bogus. No one would seek it out, no one would purchase it—except for the arbitrary governmental regulations making it necessary. You can’t blame the company for hiring the consultancy—it has little choice—but the consultancy produces nothing of any genuine worth or usefulness. This sort of consultancy doesn’t have to know what it’s doing or what it’s talking about; it only needs to know how to sound as if it knows what it’s talking about.
Some readers will contest one part or another of these descriptions, but this much I hope is beyond objection: that (a) large and growing segments of America’s culture and economy are devoted to forms of labor that produce nothing that any actual person would want badly enough to hand over his own money to attain; and that (b) the people engaged in these forms of work are afforded commensurately increasing levels of influence on American society.
The overwhelming majority of the nation’s workers do, in fact, earn their living because their work pleases other people sufficiently that they pay their own money for it: restauranteurs, owners of dry-cleaning and pest-control companies, managers of office-supply stores, accountants, janitors, nurses, oboists, makers of jewelry and coffee mugs sold at craft fairs. And thank God. If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t have a country. None of this, I want to repeat, should be taken to mean that all government workers, nonprofit employees, activists, experts, academics, and consultants are doing fraudulent work. Plainly that is not true. The point, rather, is that these fields lend themselves more easily to various forms of pretense, fakery, and non-work because they mostly lack any external measure of value that might distinguish between purposeful work and meaningless activity.
When private companies “scale up,” to use the business jargon term to mean rapidly expand, they inevitably develop dysfunctions and inefficiencies. But companies, being at the mercy of profit, have a way to discern, and a reason to rid themselves of, those dysfunctions and inefficiencies. Where there is no market, or no direct market—i.e., where there is no obvious connection between buyer and seller—the dysfunctions and inefficiencies remain and worsen.
Government is necessary, but it’s very often unclear whether government is working or worth the expense. It’s significant that the most trusted and well-liked government employees are police officers and soldiers: The work of these two sorts of government employee has an immediate and obvious value, and any lack of success by them is sadly apparent. Activists and nonprofit employees can do much good, but they tend to become useless, or in some cases a nuisance, when their organizations become large. All civilized nations have experts and academics, but when they become too numerous, and when the number of fields in which they possess specialized knowledge multiplies irrationally, their arguments and interests become vain and silly, their institutions detached from reality. Consultancy at a small scale can offer genuine value for the buyer, but as a business model it almost always involves a high level of pretense: selling the appearance of work where no work has been done, peddling dumb ideas to large companies whose managers have lost a sense of what investors and shareholders want, persuading governmental figures to hand over large sums of other people’s money for products that don’t work.
The enlargement of these four sectors of the American economy helps to explain why some areas of our public life are, at present, so vexed.
Health care: Nearly the entire field is dominated by governmental regulators, academics with big ideas, busybody activists, and consultants who profit from the disconnect between buyer and seller.
K–12 education: The government runs much of it, academia fills it with bad theory and anti-Americanism, and consultants sell their ridiculous ideas to school-board procurement officers who have no idea what they’re buying.
The arts: Composers, artists, and poets are housed in universities and encouraged to generate recondite nonsense in the hopes of impressing government-funded grant-issuing bodies; soon they have no incentive to produce works that ordinary people want to hear, see, or read.
The results: a hopelessly convoluted health-care system, an education system of ever-increasing costs and ever-diminishing quality, and a cultural sphere that has produced precious little of anything important since 1945.
All the people in these sectors feel their work is dignified. And some of it is. But much of it has no dignity. It blesses no one. No one seeks it out. No one would make the slightest personal sacrifice in order to enjoy it.
A simple way to explain the dysfunctions to which government, academia, activism, and consultancy are prone is to say they lack proper markets. That word “market” has always frightened the left, which has inherited from Marx the foolish idea that private property must involve exploitation. But in recent years prominent figures on the American right, too, have taken up the old complaint that markets uproot traditional ways of life and turn people into acquisitive hedonists. You can find the roots of this outlook in the writings of 19th-century radicals such as Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin and Tory traditionalists such as Matthew Arnold and John Henry Newman; and in recent years you find it expressed by a loose confederation of writers associated with “national conservatism.”
Much of the confusion arises from a misunderstanding of what a market is. At its core, a market gauges whether or not the results of one’s labor are a blessing to one’s fellow man. Markets don’t tell you everything you need to know about the value of a thing, but they are the oldest and commonest way to distinguish between things that have value and things that don’t.
The market is an easy thing to target. You can define it. You can monitor and manage it. You can burden it with taxation, thunder at its overpaid executives, and congratulate yourself for encouraging virtue or discouraging vice by placing well-intended regulations on it. But the market is only one arena of human activity, and it is the one most responsive to the others and the least generative of original ideas. By locating the source of our moral confusion in the market, traditionalist critics of “capitalism” are assailing the one place where genuine work—work in the ancient Jewish and Christian sense—most often takes place. The market may reproduce and in some cases magnify vices already abroad in society, but it is the only place where your work must, like God’s work in creation, please or benefit somebody else. If it does not, you won’t be doing it for much longer.
It is remarkable how often a certain kind of traditionalist critic of the market will highlight societal perversities that supposedly epitomize the moral anarchy of “unfettered capitalism” and the like but that do not, in fact, arise from the private sector at all. Much has been made of the Drag Queen Story Hour, for instance, in which cross-dressing eccentrics read books to children at local libraries. But this phenomenon is not a product of the market. No one pays for it. There was no demand for it. There is no revenue created by it. The Drag Queen Story Hour was dreamed up by people in the world of nonprofit activism, and it was and is facilitated by public libraries.
The alternately risible and chilling phenomenon of “woke capitalism,” in which large corporations ostentatiously embrace the latest manifestations of radicalism, is not properly thought of as a market phenomenon. A soft-drink company runs an ad celebrating polyamory; an airline condemns the United States for its systemic racism; a fast-food chain aggressively promotes Pride Month; a host of multinational corporations announce that they will pay employees’ travel costs incurred to obtain abortions. Stories of this kind appear to pit the private sector—the market—against traditional religious views and older habits of living. But these decisions by corporations are not the outcomes of market-driven decision-making. The fast-food company does not promote Pride Month (a creation, incidentally, of government and the nonprofit sector) to expand its presence in the lesbian and gay market. The company does so to satisfy the demands of activist investors, who don’t care at all about the company’s profits, and to avoid the denunciations of activists.
And whatever reasons there may be for all those multinational corporations to announce an intention to pay for abortion-related travel expenses after the fall of Roe v. Wade, the reason was not the profit motive. These were political decisions, born of ideology and panic and fear, not market decisions taken with the aim of increasing shareholder value.
Conservative writers may fulminate against the market for these and other offenses if they wish. They may reject “market fundamentalism” and ridicule other conservatives for believing that economic growth is necessarily good. But the cultural pathologies they deplore did not originate in the market. The sources of corporate radicalism are not the weak-kneed managers who sign off on virtue-signaling idiocies. The sources, rather, are Michel Foucault and Herbert Marcuse and the many other fanatics, frauds, and reactionaries—university employees almost to a man—who generated the ideas of which woke capitalism is a vast, nonsensical elaboration. Big Business has embraced anti-Americanism and identitarian obsessions because those pathologies were there to be embraced. Repairing all this wreckage will require many decades of patient argumentation and ordinary faithful living, and a lot of prayer. What it will not require is more fiddling with trade policy and reforms to corporate law and expansions of welfare-state largesse. There is no point in targeting the one place—the market—where old-fashioned work, the kind that has value for people other than the worker, still routinely, and necessarily, takes place.
1 This is a real thing. “The nominee, Maria Rosario Jackson, is a recognized expert in creative placemaking, a process that leverages arts, culture and design to spur economic development in communities and promote social change”: New York Times, “Nominee to Arts Endowment Sees Culture as an Economic Force,” October 11, 2021, page C4.
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